Untangling Nashville

17 Dendy and MapLinda Burton posting from Nashville, Tennessee – “The thing I love about Nashville is that it’s a big city that feels like a small town.” I heard that statement three times in a row today, from people of different ages in different settings. The same exact words! “A big city that feels like a small town.” I asked each one to explain what they meant. “People are friendly,” was one answer. “Everybody takes care of each other.” “It’s just a bunch of good neighborhoods.” “People here have no pretenses.” Dendy, who’s in the music business, talked about the rich and famous who call Nashville home. “They like to spend time here because they can walk around and rub elbows with everybody else with no hassle.” Martha, who travels the south in her marketing job, talked about the friendliness here. “I’d choose Nashville over any other city,” she said. “It’s pretty, and there are a million things to do. We’ve got good music and we’ve got good churches and we’ve got really good food. I always feel good when I get close to Nashville.” I interrupted Martha at that point. “I felt terror,” I threw in. “The traffic!” “Well, 17 skylineyes, there is a lot of traffic,” she conceded, “and the streets can be confusing until you learn your way around.” I’ll say! Street names change at almost every turn; this road goes there and that road turns this way. There are freeways and parkways and boulevards and pikes. A lot of pikes, for a lot of cars, for a lot of people. Nashville’s population is 601,222 (US 2010 Census) and it’s the 6th largest capital city – just a tad smaller than Boston and a tad larger than Denver. My challenge is to untangle the mystery: why does big-city Nashville feel so small-town sweet?

Nashville’s nicknames may help to explain — Music City USA, and Buckle of the Bible Belt. “We go honky-tonking on Saturday night and then get up on Sunday and go to church,” is another line I’ve heard. Numerous music clubs and honky-tonk bars can be found in Nashville; especially in the downtown area near the river referred to as the District. You can walk Lower Broadway, Second Avenue, and Printer’s Alley till 3 AM; live music and open doors beckon.

But Nashville has 792 churches too; and several seminaries. The National Baptist Convention, National Association of Free Will Baptists, and Gideons International are seated here. Christian publishing is a huge industry in Nashville; you’ll find Thomas Nelson, the world’s largest producer of Bibles; the United Methodist Publishing House; the Sunday School Publishing Board of the National Baptist Convention; and LifeWay Christian Resources for the Southern Baptist Convention.

17 goohTo segue back into the city’s musical leanings – the Gospel Music Association is headquartered here and a number of Christian music companies are located in Nashville along 16th and 17th Avenues South on Music Row. Yet you probably think of country music when you think of Nashville. Is Nashville a mecca for every country singer-songwriter in the world? It may be; certainly most tourists come to Nashville for the country-music scene. The top three tourist draws are Downtown’s Ryman Auditorium and the Country Music Hall of Fame; nine miles away in Music Valley is the Grand Ole Opry House, opened in 1974, with country music stars raising the roof three nights a week.

17 Cash clothesA little bit about the historic Ryman. It’s called the “Mother Church of Country Music” and in fact started out in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle; the Grand Ole Opry radio show didn’t begin to broadcast from there until 1943. During the years of the Opry’s residence (1943-1974) pioneering performers such as Hank Williams and Patsy Cline helped shape country music from the Ryman stage. It’s a National Historic Landmark now; open for tours every day; exhibits show evolving styles from bluegrass to honky-tonk to hillbilly to country/western. Stand on the stage where George 17 Ryman pews to backJones, Tex Ritter, Porter Wagoner, Johnny and June Carter Cash used to stand; see the mikes and instruments that were used. It still smells like it probably did back then, when lines formed clear around the block to get in, and families settled down on wooden pews with their picnic baskets on warm summer nights; come for the music, and the fun of it. “Remove the gum from under the seats but leave the nicks and scars,” was the direction given when it was re-opened in 1994 for tours and shows. http://www.ryman.com/

17 cmhf drawingThe Country Music Hall of Fame doesn’t reek of history and ghosts, as the Ryman does; it’s a modern tribute to those who made country-music history. You need to stand a few blocks away to take in the architecture; the windows on the front of the building resemble black piano keys; the four disc-shaped tiers on the rotunda’s roof represent the evolution of recording technology: the 78, the vinyl LP, the 45, and the compact disc. The tower rising from the rotunda is a reminder of the diamond-shaped WSM radio tower, which was 17 Patsyinstrumental in the growth of country music. The giant sweeping arch on the right side of the building portrays a 1950’s Cadillac fin; the cylindrical shape of the rotunda reminds of the water towers and grain silos found in rural settings. Inside, an elevator transports to the third floor to begin; high-tech exhibits tell the country music story; special exhibits highlight specific artists such as Patsy Cline, open through June 10; see her letters and clothing and presence, on screen; listen to her crystal-pure voice. The building is currently expanding to double its size. http://countrymusichalloffame.org/

To see the NOW of country music, you catch a show at the Grand Ole Opry House out in Music Valley. It bills itself as “the heart of American music” as well as “the heart of Nashville.” If you’re a fan of Vince Gill, Martina McBride, Carrie Underwood, and Ricky Skaggs, they are just a few of the stars that make up the Opry family today. Brad Paisley had this to say: “Pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem to see the Holy Land; fans flock to Nashville to see the foundation of country music.” The show goes on every Friday and Saturday night; weekdays vary summer and winter; you can get a Backstage Pass for a tour of the building in the daytime; or a post-Opry tour; the VIP tour takes you behind the scenes before the show begins and has you on-stage as the curtain is raised. http://www.opry.com/

17 DollyFans adore the Nashville big name glitter. But “I’m just a good old country boy,” is more often than not the proclamation of the stars. “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap,” Dolly Parton laughs, and we love her; we know she’s a savvy business woman, we also know she doesn’t put too much pomp on herself. “It takes about four hours to do my hair, but I’m not there while it’s happening,” is another Dolly kidding-ism. You’d enjoy having Dolly come to dinner at your house. She’d probably hug your neck the minute she came in the door, and thank you for having her over. That kind of sweet.

As to the special appeal of the music we call country; I see it as equal parts humility and pride; equal parts hard work and having fun; garnished up with some fried chicken and turnip greens. Country music tells it like it is, good or bad. What is plainer, or makes you want to smile, more than Harold Barlow’s 1949 lament “I’ve got tears in my ears from lying on my back in my bed while I’m crying over you”? The music may have gotten more technically sophisticated over the years, but note that Taylor Swift’s latest release repeats over and over “We will never ever ever ever get back together….” Ever. Boots may sparkle with rhinestones 17 urban 2and rumpled tee-shirts may shout out opinions, but if you hurt, you cry, and sing. If you feel good, you go to church, and sing.

Is that what makes big-city Nashville feel so small-town sweet? Is Nashville Music City USA, or the Buckle of the Bible Belt? Is it both? I haven’t untangled that just yet, but I did observe that multi-award-winning country music star Keith Urban and his Academy Award winning wife Nicole Kidman, Nashville residents, named their two daughters Sunday Rose and Faith Margaret.